Unveiling and packaging

Early one summer morning, a young Australian philosophy graduate was awoken by a phone call. It was the eminent professor David Lewis, calling from Princeton University’s philosophy department. “You’ve been admitted to our graduate program,” Lewis said. “Do you have any questions?” Still in the fog of sleep and desperate to think of something to ask, the student blurted out: “How many Australians are in the department?” After an uncomfortably long pause, Lewis replied: ‘Depends how you count Australians.’ This anecdote, recounted by the erstwhile student Alan Hayek, shows that even the most commonplace concepts can turn out to be polyvalent. Especially if you let a philosopher loose on them.

Chon Day cartoon (1954)
So you think I’m too pedantic, eh? And what exactly is your definition of pedantic?
(Illustration by Chon Day. Caption by Rex May)

No surprise, then, that when I was asked to write an article on how philosophy should be presented, my reflex was to think: “it depends on what you mean by ‘presented’.” I went on to mull at length over two senses of presentation, taking it first as an act of unveiling (that is, revealing a philosophical practice), and secondly as an act of packaging (that is, designing, curating and arranging philosophical materials). Having done all that mulling, I would very much like to share here what these notions of unveiling and packaging have led me to conclude about how philosophising with school students might be done.

Unveiling Philosophy

Regular readers will know that The Philosophy Club’s workshops present philosophy to students as a collaborative practice of both shared inquiry and dialogic argument. As students enter the dialogic space, they embark on “friendly excursions into disequilibrium” where they encounter divergent and often challenging points of view. They come to see the importance of remaining actively open-minded: welcoming criticism, taking opposing positions seriously and evaluating them fairly. By the same token, students discover the value they can contribute as supportive, critical interlocutors who can identify the implications of their peers’ claims, question their criteria for making judgements, raise objections, and offer alternative points of view.

With enough experience of collaborative philosophical inquiry and dialogic argument, each student can learn to be their own interlocutor, and engage in an internal dialogue that challenges their own thinking. Meanwhile, for novice philosophers, thinking together affords opportunities that solitary introspection lacks: opportunities to frame problems better, to test out particular ideas and arguments, and to overcome cognitive biases and entrenched beliefs.

Art by Egor Shapovalov

Even more fundamentally, collaborative philosophical inquiry and dialogic argument enables students to establish and refine community norms of effective thinking. If students were flying solo, they’d struggle to assess the clarity, accuracy, coherence, plausibility, significance and relevance of their ideas. As Peter Ellerton points out, students may not even realise that these are norms worth valuing, since such realisations only dawn in the social processes of constructing and evaluating arguments. Ellerton further proposes that thinking well is, in part, “about learning how to think with others, to in effect become part of a broader social cognition that can achieve more collectively than is possible individually”.

Engaging in collaborative philosophical inquiry and dialogic argument is a key to developing students’ respect for epistemic rigour and rational engagement—values that each student will subsequently be in a position to internalise. Without such opportunities to think collaboratively, and lacking the tools to discriminate among competing knowledge claims on the basis of evidence and argument, adolescents “typically fall into ‘a poisoned well of doubt’, and they fall hard and deep“. In light of this tendency, it’s crucial to cultivate shared evaluative reasoning. A driving force in my work is the desire to help students move beyond epistemological relativism––to help them recognise that while everyone is entitled to their beliefs, this doesn’t render all beliefs equally reasonable. As Deanna Kuhn points out, “some opinions are in fact better than others, to the extent that they are better supported by argument and evidence”. Once philosophy is unveiled as (among other things) an evaluative practice, students begin to understand knowledge as consisting of judgements that can be evaluated according to criteria––criteria which are themselves open to evaluation. The practice of collaborative philosophical inquiry and dialogic argument reveals the value of philosophical dispositions: being curious, open-minded, amenable to reason, and ready to self-correct. Through their practice, students perceive their own accountability. It is not enough to make their positions clear to their peers, they discover; they must also make their reasoning clear. 

Packaging Philosophy

In the design of workshops I try to package content in ways that most vividly acquaint students with philosophical problems, and lay the groundwork for them to philosophise together. Philosophical content packaged in this way constitutes a stimulus for thinking. In finding appropriate stimuli, I find that it’s a constant challenge to strike the right balance between philosophical content and literary/artistic merit. As Matthew Lipman once observed, some stimuli are “all story and no philosophy”, while others are “all philosophy and no story”. Achieving a suitable balance in this regard—where ‘story’ is interpreted loosely to refer to any narrative or otherwise expressive output—remains, in my view, a key priority for designers and curators of philosophical stimuli.

Unpacking The Thinker
A crew unpack Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker at Stanford University. Photo by L. A. Cicero

Material for a fertile philosophical encounter can be packaged in any number of forms besides the conventional treatise, essay or scholarly article. Barry Lam, academic philosopher and creator of the Hi Phi Nation podcast, draws attention to some fundamental differences between the aims of academic philosophy and those of philosophy for the general public. He goes so far as to say that “the design features that make for good academic philosophy might make for terrible public philosophy”. Much academic philosophy, he observes, is “engineered for epistemic justification… [such that] every matter of misrepresentation, uncharitable reading, or objection, must be anticipated and alleviated”, whereas narrative-driven public philosophy is engineered for “engagement, attention-holding, tension-creation, and resolution”.

As a genre of public philosophy, philosophical inquiry among children must first and foremost engage its participants. Workshop designers can choose from materials that are:

  • verbal: fictional stories, historical tales, myths, parables, creative nonfiction, journalism, poetry, anecdotes (for further reading, see Peter Worley’s book Once Upon an If);
  • visual: artworks, picture books, comics, graphic images;
  • multimedia: documentary films, animated videos, recorded speeches or interviews, music clips, interactive websites;
  • theatrical: Readers Theatre, scripted or semi-scripted dialogues, dramatic performances, puppetry;
  • satirical: mock TV advertisements, posters or campaign brochures that promote fictional goods or services;
  • ludic: puzzles, games, or conceptual exploration activities;
  • artefactual: evocative objects.

This variety of options is beneficial because, as Rick Garlikov notes, relatively few students find school material, when presented in textbook or lecture form, sufficiently interesting or meaningful to bother thinking about in ways that will help them see its point, or extract their own meanings and implications from it.

Art by Maxwell Tilse

Most of the types of stimuli I’ve mentioned above can be effective vehicles for presenting counterfactuals, imagined scenarios, and thought experiments. In contrast to the pared-back thought experiments typically found in the academic literature, though, elaborated scenarios seem to appeal more to young philosophers. When designing workshops for high schoolers, I look for stimuli that provide thick descriptions, vivid and believable character motivations, and a richness of contextual detail that connects the philosophical ideas with students’ life experiences. Near-future science fiction seems to be an especially compelling genre, well suited to activating students’ imaginations and drawing them into the domain of the hypothetical. As Eric Schwitzgebel says of science fiction and speculative fiction more generally, “[t]he specificity of the possibilities considered, and its emotional and imagistic power, engages parts of the mind that more abstract forms of speculation leave hungry.”

In my experience, assembling several types of stimuli, each of which sheds light on a different aspect of a given theme—and supporting students as they investigate each stimulus in turn—is a blueprint for the most satisfying experiences of collaborative philosophical inquiry and dialogic argument.

It would surely help if we could tell in advance whether a particular stimulus is likely to be effective. And it turns out we can, as my next post will show.

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This is the first in a series of five posts adapted from my article ‘Unveiling and Packaging’ (pre-print available) which is published in the journal Human Affairs as follows: Sowey, Michelle. Unveiling and Packaging: A model for presenting philosophy in schools. Human Affairs, 31(4), 2021, pp. 398-408.

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The Philosophy Club works with teachers and students to develop a culture of critical and creative thinking through collaborative enquiry and dialogue.

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